Realizing HD Radio’s Limitless Future

HD Radio on an in-cabin dash
July 21, 2022 Xperi

By: George Cernat, Director, Product Marketing

Through HD Radio, Xperi plays an outsize role in shaping the continuous success of radio and the future of radio broadcast in North America and globally. George Cernat, director, product marketing, spoke with Ashruf El-Dinary, senior vice president of digital platforms, and Joe D’Angelo, senior vice president of global radio and digital audio, to gather their insights about the exciting HD Radio efforts taking place at Xperi.

Tell us about your role at the company.

Ashruf: I am responsible for automotive technology solutions, which encompasses a lot of our products going into the automotive space. My primary focus has been HD Radio, historically, Within the radio segment, we are responsible for setting system specifications, working with standards organizations and influencing regulatory policy around digital radio broadcasting. We work on broadcast technology solutions that go into radio stations and engage with the broadcasters on launching the HD Radio feature sets. We also manage the certification process around HD Radio products. We have been highly successful in that space and to date, we have certified over 4,400 different HD radio receiver models that are in cars, home entertainment and portable devices.

Joe: I am responsible for our broadcast radio business and app products globally. Specifically, I look after the HD Radio licensing in North America and ensure broadcasters are utilizing all the services and features of HD Radio technology to get all the benefits that the technology offers. I am also responsible for the All in Media business out of the UK and Australia—a very successful radio apps and studio systems business with thousands of radio station customers around the world. I also oversee content acquisition for the broadcast radio portion of DTS AutoStage which has led to direct relationships with some of the largest radio broadcasters around.

Can you share a bit of history related to HD Radio.

Ashruf: I think it would have to go back to the mid-1990s when CBS Broadcasting was interested in the future of radio technology and looking at the competitive threats coming from satellite radio, the mp3 players at the time and other media distribution services. With the realization that analog radio would not be able to compete long-term with those types of threats, they kicked off a program to address that. At the time CBS had ownership of Westinghouse, which is a defense contractor. The Westinghouse team had a lot of technologies from military applications that they felt could apply to developing a digital radio solution. They put together some core concepts that have carried through since the late 90s, which is when I started. At the same time, there was a parallel effort going on within Lucent and they were investigating ideas around digital broadcasting. Lucent Digital Radio was looking into essentially developing a competitive, but similar type of technology solution.

In August of 2000, Lucent Digital Radio and USA Digital Radio (Westinghouse) merged to form Ibiquity Digital and that led to a rapid commercialization of the product.

Joe: What’s interesting about the birth of HD Radio is that the broadcast industry took it upon itself to modernize its infrastructure and chart a digital transition for broadcast radio. The industry had a desire to transition to digital, but after looking at currently available technologies it was determined they would be best served to fund the development of a new technology that would better support their commercial and regulatory environment, That decision lead to the development of HD Radio. Over time, with the support of the industry and a lot of work by our engineering teams, we were able to commercialize a product. Once we validated the system, we then tackled the challenge of reducing cost and complexity to make it commercially viable, which happened in the early 2000s.

Ashruf: As far as milestones are concerned, BMW was the first original equipment manufacturer (OEM) we launched HD Radio with, Kenwood was the first aftermarket consumer product and Boston Acoustics did one of the first home table radios.

Joe: I also remember from a broadcaster perspective, one of the most innovative moments for me was when Mike Starling who was CTO of NPR approached us about a new concept they were proposing—which became multicasting. And through the initiatives of Mike and many others in the industry, we were able to develop and commercialize and get approval from the FCC for multicasting. That became a foundational value offering of HD Radio: offering additional audio channels.

Speaking of HD Radio technology, can you describe it in simple terms? How does it improve upon existing analog radio?

Joe: Soon after joining Lucent Digital Radio, the technology was explained to me as we’ve taken some defense technology that the U.S. government first used in the 60s and 70s to hide spy signals inside FM analog broadcasts. We took that same technology where you can basically hide a signal within another signal—and thanks to the evolution of digital technology—we were able to take that modulation or transmission scheme and inject a digital signal in that space. We were able to take the spectrum that’s allocated from the FCC to a local radio station and create a new signal that sits within the same frequency but carries completely different types of information. It’s digital, rather than analog, and can deliver up to 150 kilobits of information on a single FM station.

Ashruf: And with that, it enables a whole lot of new radio experiences: it’s not FDR’s fireside chat radio, where you’re tuning in and listening to static audio. HD Radio technology is delivering high-quality audio experience, along with relevant metadata and even multimedia in terms of images and other graphics. It really brings radio broadcasting to the level that people are expecting, given all of the other media options that they have today.

This is a perfect segue into the next question. What’s the pitch for HD Radio? Why HD Radio?

Joe: HD Radio is by far the most efficient digital radio transmission technology in the world. HD Radio is unique because it allows you to reuse spectrum and reuse infrastructure. And for a very, very nominal investment, broadcasters are able to add completely different audio services and they don’t have to retrain the listener on how to use radio to find their programming. It’s a very natural evolution of the radio listening experience. You still get into a car, you tune to your favorite station and that station is now delivered in digital quality with rich multimedia graphics. That’s been the case for the last 15 years. HD Radio also allowed radio broadcasters to incrementally take advantage of new technology to aid in discovery and engagement with a new younger audience. These visuals, which were a nice add-on in 2010, are now expected by the consumer. Those images are how you discover and tune into radio stations, far removed from seeing a list of numbers representing the station’s frequencies. You’re getting a much richer user experience with station logos, as well as artist and album images. It is also an extremely cost-effective, market-based migration technology for the broadcast industry and their listeners

Ashruf: One of the other key interesting features of HD Radio broadcasting, which is sometimes overlooked, is that it is compatible with existing analog services. It did not require a forced mandate to transition to digital. It did not require obsoleting billions of devices. It allowed the U.S. or North American markets to adopt digital broadcasting at the pace that the industry needed and gave the regulatory groups the flexibility to move forward. In countries like Norway, for example, with DAB, they ended up shutting down analog broadcasting, which caused a major inconvenience.

The other aspect of HD Radio is the dedication of the team behind it. If you look at the experience of the engineering groups working on HD Radio programs, we’ve all been doing this for 10, 15, 20+ years. With that comes not only the depth of experience, but a commitment to quality: the HD Radio team is there to resolve it, whether the issue is with the car manufacturers or with a broadcast radio station. Xperi’s HD Radio team is an organization that’s committed to improving broadcasting, even looking at new ideas and innovations. Contrast this with other technologies that are done in consortium style, where they pull ideas together, but there’s no entity that really drives it to success or assumes responsibility for technical issues.

Joe: This is the fastest-growing broadcast digital broadcast technology in the world. That commitment to quality shows as we are partners with both the broadcasters and the car manufacturers. We stand by the technology as we continuously innovate, reduce cost and increase functionality.

What excites you about HD Radio as you look to the future?

Joe: The first thing that excites me is the expansion into new markets like Canada, India and Brazil, which is largely driven by Ashruf’s team’s efforts. Second is that the technology is now viable for the small and medium market broadcasters now to convert to digital radio because the cost of the technology has come down so much, and the install base of cars has increased tremendously. They can finally afford to participate in the digital broadcast evolution. Third is the continuous innovation—the team never stops innovating, delivering more bandwidth, more features and higher quality of service.

Ashruf: I agree with the innovation Joe mentioned because that’s what my team works on. But the other thing that excites me is the opportunity to create more business growth for the broadcasters with this technology and what we can do in that space. We can use digital broadcasting in other ways, beyond media and entertainment: applications like IoT could lead to new revenue streams for broadcasters.